Why my heart sank to see the opening of our first Sikh school

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The Independent Culture
THE FIRST state-funded Sikh school in Europe opened this week. Jack Straw, duly garlanded with marigolds, I am sure, was at the opening, as were the many leaders and leaderenes who can talk so approvingly of "diversity" these days.

This is the fifth faith-based school since 1997 to have been granted state funding. The others are the Mathilda Marks-Kennedy Jewish School in Barnet, the Islamia Muslim school in Brent, the Al Furquan school, also Muslim, in Birmingham, and the John Loughborough Seventh Day Adventist school in North London. April 2000 will see the opening of the Jewish Torah Temimah School in Brent. Asians expect there to be a state-funded Hindu school before long. Meanwhile Church of England and Catholic schools seem to be applying ever more exacting criteria so that children from other faiths can be kept out, even if they make up a large section of the local community and rejection means they are relegated to some of the sink schools in the area. David Blunkett passionately backs these schools, believing they offer better choices to parents within mainstream education.

Unlike most other black and Asian Britons, my heart sinks into utter gloom when I hear about these victories and developments. For me, this is the end of a dream that has yet to be dreamt. It is educating children to separate themselves from others and to distance themselves from the core values that should bind the various peoples of any national entity. It is planning for the end of Britain, as it has been struggling to become in the last 50 years.

And I mind terribly, because Britishness has only recently become a preciously acquired identity for many of us. From being a stamp of colonialism and snobbery, we fought to make Britishness into something else. Nowadays many of us can say we are British without that abject insistence in our voices that we had in the past.

Remember that Goodness Gracious Me!, chicken tikka masala, Benjamin Zefaniah, London and Birmingham are British. They are not Scottish, Welsh, Sikh or Muslim. Yet today fewer and fewer people on this island (not including those on the rabid right who crave to go back to the past) seem interested in this essential, cohering identity.

A recent survey in The Economist showed Britain now commanding less loyalty than its constituent parts among the majority of the Scots and Welsh. Only a minority of the English were prepared to put Britain first. The forthcoming report by a high-powered commission on the future of multiethnic Britain, consisting of people such as Lady Hollick, Andrew Marr, Stuart Hall and Bhikhu Parekh, confirms that these identities are becoming increasingly more meaningful to vast numbers of people.

As the deeper effects of devolution begin to be felt, and the English get restive demanding their own parliament and territory, who is there left to fight for New Britain?

It seems that this responsibility now falls upon those black and Asian Britons who feel most passionately about the need to reinvigorate our dying national identity - something that will be discussed in a programme that I am presenting on Analysis, on Radio 4 tonight.

We have an important role to play in this regeneration. This is why I think it makes no sense to relocate within compounds, comfortable enclaves, which is what separate schools represent. When the first Muslim school obtained state funding in January 1998, I wrote that I was anxious that this would only make it easier for mainstream societies further to demonise and exclude us, and that there was also a danger that our children would not be able to avoid an over-developed sense of their own "special" status and sense of grievance. They would never be interrogated about their beliefs and way of life, nor would they learn to do the same with Christians, Sikhs and others. All black schools contain the same dangers.

Today, I feel that even more is at stake, and that we have to think very carefully as a society about the implications of having any state-funded schools that are driven by the desire to take future generations out of the complexities of modern multicultural Britain - and, in effect, create tribes within the nation.

Of course, it is right and just that black and Asian Britons should have the same rights to set up schools as Christians and Jews. But while trying to remedy injustice, we may be ending up otherwise. I have no doubt that these schools are excellent in many ways. Looking at the delightful pictures of Sikh and Muslim children in their own schools, you can see the confidence that must come from the fact that they feel safe there. So many of our children are abused or beaten up in playgrounds, or just made to feel ashamed for being who they are. So I can understand why parents would want this option.

The children will mercifully not be affected by white working-class attitudes to education. This must be the only country in the world where the poor see education as a threat to their right to remain ignorant. They will learn respect, value the education they receive and learn to be worthy inheritors of their particular religions and ethical values.

My objections therefore are not those you often hear from virulent secular liberals, who despise the very idea of religion in schools. Both my children have been educated at a Church of England school, although with the younger one the battle to get her in was exhausting. It is because the school has a good academic record, but also because as a Muslim I wanted the children to learn about Christianity so that they could learn that in the end there is but one God.

But had there been another, equivalent school where all the major faiths were taught, it would have been my preference - because that is what integration should mean. And I believe profoundly that the focus now needs to be on how we are to create integration between the different and discrete British communities. The centre, else, will not hold, and things will fall apart. And the people who will suffer most will be us, the British people of colour.